EU starts investigating Ramla l-Hamra permit -
david vella
30 June 2007

The EU has formally started investigating Mepa’s decision to allow the construction of villas at Ramla l-Hamra, as “there are grounds that there may be a breach of European environmental directives”.

The European Commission is investigating both the legality of Mepa’s decision to waive the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) requirement, and also the negative consequences that this construction project can have on the sensitive ecological sites in the area.

Probe may lead to infringement procedure

If the Commission’s investigation confirms that the development at the Gozitan bay breaches the EIA Directive, or the Habitats Directive, the EU will be filing an infringement procedure against the Maltese government, sources at the Commission’s Environment Directorate General told The Commission’s probe was launched following numerous complaints it received from individuals and organisations in Malta and Gozo.

In a letter sent to the complainants, Julio Garcia Burgues, the Head of the Environment DG’s Infringement Unit, wrote: “The first preliminary assessment of the information you provided has been undertaken. On the basis of this assessment, we have decided to open a new complaint against Malta”.

The Commission sources explained to that the infringement unit will now ask the Maltese government for a clarification. If the information sent by the objectors to the development is confirmed, the Commission will launch an infringement procedure against the Maltese government.

Villas next to protected sites

Last Monday, hundreds of protesters called on government to revoke the Mepa permit for the building of 23 villas on the clay slopes between the Calypso Cave and Ramla l-Hamra Bay. A derelict building is currently occupying part of the site, which extends to just a few metres away from two listed areas, including a Natura 2000 site, recognised by the EU due to its international ecological importance. The protestors also urged authorities to stop the proposed mega construction project, including a yacht marina, a hotel and hundreds of apartments, at Hondoq ir-Rummien, another pristine Gozitan bay.

Over 8,000 Maltese and foreign individuals signed a petition calling for the annulment of the permit for villas at Ramla l-Hamra.

During the protest, Carmen Bajada, a local councillor from Xaghra, addressed the 1,500 strong crowd and informed them that Labour MEP Joseph Muscat has urged the European Commission to urgently listen to the environmentalists’ appeals and investigate the Ramla l-Hamra development permit.

Possibly two directives breached

The Commission’s probe is focusing on the possible breach of two EU directives. The Habitats Directive of 1992 binds member states to ensure the protection of Natura 2000 special areas of conservation, such as Ramla l-Hamra. “Member States shall take appropriate steps to avoid, in the special areas of conservation, the deterioration of natural habitats and the habitats of species as well as disturbance of the species for which the areas have been designated”.

Article 6 of this Directive states that “any plan or project not directly connected with or necessary to the management of the site but likely to have a significant effect thereon, either individually or in combination with other plans or projects, shall be subject to appropriate assessment of its implications for the site in view of the site's conservation objectives. In the light of the conclusions of the assessment of the implications for the site and subject to the provisions of paragraph 4, the competent national authorities shall agree to the plan or project only after having ascertained that it will not adversely affect the integrity of the site concerned and, if appropriate, after having obtained the opinion of the general public”.

At Ramla l-Hamra, the Malta Environment and Planning Authority (Mepa) was criticised for issuing the development permit for villas without first requesting the appropriate studies. At the same time, it ignored requests by the public to suspend the final decision and give time for further assessment.

EIA waiver under investigation

Mepa also decided to waive the developers’ obligation to carry out a detailed EIA to determine the effects of the proposed construction development. This is also being investigated by the Commission, on grounds that it constitutes a breach of the EIA Directive of 1985.

This European law obliges member states to “adopt all measures necessary to ensure that, before consent is given, projects likely to have significant effects on the environment by virtue inter alia, of their nature, size or location are made subject to an assessment with regard to their effects… The environmental impact assessment may be integrated into the existing procedures for consent to projects in the Member States, or, failing this, into other procedures or into procedures to be established to comply with the aims of this Directive.

A few days ago, the European Commission has already lodged an infringement procedure against the Maltese government for waiving the EIA requirement to the developers of the Fort Cambridge residential complex in Tigne, Sliema.
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30 Jun 2007 by